The dilemmaI like writing code. If I had unlimited time and resources, I'd start each project in an empty window of my favorite text editor (Programmer's Notepad) and peck out every line of code, soup to nuts. On even the most trivial mobile apps these days that usually means the app itself, a support website, and some kind of REST backend.
If you're lucky, that backend piece is something that can exist in a shared hosting environment alongside your website — maybe a LAMP stack that runs you several bucks a month. Chances are, if you've been writing mobile apps for awhile, you've already had the opportunity to cut your teeth on the server-side tech, say maybe PHP and MySQL. And yet even when all the pieces fall into place and the winds of good fortune smile upon me, I find it's tough to crank out apps with any real velocity when I'm flying the entire project solo.
Take my latest title, which I released for Kindle Fire last week. Not only does it require I keep up with user logins, high scores, and player statistics, but it has a social aspect that allows users to play turn-based games against their friends. I implemented the first pass at the backend myself, but I was spending so much time on that side of the house that I couldn't concentrate on the actual game.
After a lot of stalling, I began to explore the Platform as a Service (PaaS) options targeted at mobile developers; some of the PaaS options are for mobile development in general, while others target a specific vertical like gaming. All of the platforms I looked at had things I liked and things I didn't like, but I chose Parse because it best fit this particular project, and because the pricing model allowed me to ramp up gradually as my user base increases.
On my previous two projects, I wrote the backend from scratch. Let's look at how using Parse compared.
- It didn't cost me one cent to get started. Parse allows up to one million API requests per month before billing kicks in. (This wasn't necessarily unique to Parse; most of the PaaS offerings I explored had a minimum level of service before you had to get out your credit card.)
- Getting started was faster. I didn't have to set up MySQL permissions, upgrade my version of PHP, or any of those other tedious tasks that are often associated with shared hosting.
- Simple CRUD operations were a dream.
- The REST API was straight-forward and easy to use.
- Handling push notifications to the end-user devices was greatly simplified.
- I am locked into Parse. Its API is specific to the platform, and if I decided to move my backend, or worse yet, Parse flipped the off switch on all its servers, I would be out of business for weeks while I scrambled to find a new provider.
- Relational queries are a little harder to implement, as a PaaS platform must abstract you from the underlying database.
- Creating triggers on the server side was more challenging. I pushed a lot of logic down to the mobile device that I probably would have handled on the server if I had direct access to it.
- I couldn't find a way to make database writes truly atomic. I had to take additional steps at the client to insure data synchronization.
- Push notifications on Android were implemented using a custom service rather than Google Cloud Messaging (GCM). This means you must add the Parse service to all your Android and Kindle applications to get notifications to run.
I feel like using a PaaS platform was the right call for my latest project; I estimate that offloading the task of the backend onto the PaaS platform got me to market three to six months earlier. I admit, however, that it was hard to give up control, and it required me to make compromises.
Since the turnover of mobile games is high, I will likely continue to leverage services like Parse. I believe these services will only get better and more competitive over time.
Share your thoughts
Have you moved away from or are you thinking about moving away from a custom backend for your Android apps? If so, do you have experience with one or more PaaS options? Let us know in the discussion.
William J Francis began programming computers at age eleven. Specializing in embedded and mobile platforms, he has more than 20 years of professional software engineering under his belt, including a four year stint in the US Army's Military Intelligence Corps. Throughout his career William has published numerous technical articles, as well as the occasional short story.